White People 101 or "I Don't Want to be Racist"

By Tracy Keenan

June 26, 2015

When white people get together to talk about race, especially white people who mostly live around other white people, and who don’t want to be racist, we tend to say ridiculous things. We like to pretend that we really have no prejudice, that we never make snap judgments about anyone based on color. Some are eager to give instances of all the people of color we have known and how close our friendships are, often exaggerating the depth of each acquaintance to add to our race credibility.  We pretend there is no "otherness," which denies the actual experience of our sisters and brothers of color.

It’s kind of embarrassing.

Blog image 2Sometimes people say, “I don’t see color,” and I’m sure they mean this with every good intention. “People are people,” they often add, which, of course, is true.

People ARE people.

AND we come in different colors.

AND the color we are affects how society perceives us.

It is part of what shapes the experiences we have. If we don’t see color, we do not recognize that, and we can’t begin to understand one another.
Blog imageSeriously.
Do you look at me and not see what I am a white American woman in my fifties? Do you not see that my race, age, and sex shape how I see myself and how the world reacts to my presence? Would you say to me, “Oh, I don’t see male or female,” or “I don’t see age?”

The world treats me differently as a fifty-something year-old woman than it does if I am a twenty-something year-old man, for sure. Add color to that and you have a vividly enhanced picture of what I’m talking about.

Please see color. See yours and that of others, because it does color who the world tends to treat you at least as much as your behavior and sense of style.

There’s a popular YouTube video out there made by a white man who says that he’s a redneck, and that he used to be racist, but no longer. He goes on to say that our society is racist, and that’s what we need to address. I don’t care about whether or not the guy is who he says he is – I just recognize the truth when I hear it, and he’s right when he says that our society favors whiteness, and that we white people benefit from that and need to acknowledge that.  It seems strange that I even need to say this; one would think it were self evident. But I still hear from some other white people that affirmative action and the existence of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission make this a non-issue. This is non-true.

This is a country that has a distinct preference for whiteness. The benefit of the doubt is more easily given to a white person than a person of color, absolutely. I do not have security guards tail me in a department store because of my color. I do not get pulled over (often) unless I have actually been speeding. There are countless things that never even have to cross my mind that my black and Hispanic friends have to think about every day. [Peggy McIntosh has written an excellent piece on this: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack:http://amptoons.com/blog/files/mcintosh.html)

And I am not even scratching the surface here of slavery and Jim Crow’s legacy of harm that continues to punish the black community with its generational ripple effects. And the generations are not just black ones. White generations are affected, too. Think about it: our white grandparents thought very differently about race from the way we do now. 
eyeballIt does not all come down to individual behavior. This is not a world where, if you follow all the rules, you will be fine no matter what color you are. If you are white and follow all the rules, things usually do work out. If you are white and you break the rules, you have a much better chance of getting away with it. It’s a society that assumes that white is “better.”

As a Christian, here are a couple of things my faith puts out there in front of me that are pertinent here, at least for starters:

1. The log in my own eye is more my business than the speck in someone else’s eye. [Matthew 7:1-5https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=matthew+7%3A1-5&version=NRSV] I hear many of us white people responding with defensiveness or even counter-attacks when people of color point out our racist suppositions.  When the subject of discrepancies in the justice system or treatment in the social realm come up, it doesn’t take long for a white person to begin pointing the finger at any blacks who are violent or looting or some other thing. The implication is that as long as there are people on the “other side” committing wrongs, there can be no examination of our complicity in the problem. We have to be able to put down the accusing pointer finger and look at the ways we enjoy privilege, not to mention how we perpetuate the whole thing with our attitudes. It’s not comfortable, and it is certainly humbling, and no one likes to enter that realm willingly, but it is part ofrecognizing truth and stepping onto the path that can lead to healing. (Again, see http://amptoons.com/blog/files/mcintosh.html for a start…)

And does it really matter who is “allowed” to use the N word? Just don’t.

2. Even if I don’t DO terrible things such as murdering others, if I angrily condemn others based on the little I can know about them from what I see on the surface, I am culpable of the same wrong. [Matthew 5:21-22https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=matthew+5%3A21-22&version=NRSV] Blue is blue whether it’s sky blue or navy blue. Angry condemnation and murder are on the same continuum – just different degrees. If I benefit from a society that is tilted in my favor and blame others for speaking up about the injustice of it, it’s just a muted shade of the very same color that is white supremacy. I don’t like it, but it’s true.

I don’t want to be racist.

I want to be aware of the privilege I have as a white person in this country, not so I can perpetuate it, but so that my awareness can be a first step towards a just society.

I don’t want to be racist.

I need to do more listening and less talking where my friends and acquaintances of color are concerned. They don’t need me telling them how they should or should not perceive the world. I need them to tell me what I might not be seeing due to my privilege. That’s another small step I can take. And at the same time, I need to speak up when white friends and acquaintances are being blind to injustice or are making ridiculous assumptions. Maybe they’ll hear it from me.

I don’t want to be racist.

I need to recognize those moments when I am even thinking passing thoughts that are making assumptions about people of other races when I do not understand what their experiences have been. Take note and name it and let it go. It’s a start. Keeps me from imagining that I’m immune to prejudice.

I don’t want to be racist.

And I definitely do not want to be the kind of white person who pretends that I don’t live in a world that is tilted unfairly in my favor.

This is just a place to begin.

And there’s a long way to go.

But this work matters to all of us.

All of us.

As in “liberty and justice for all.”
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